Is Differential Too Deferential?

Six months ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that fiscal 2008 statistics showed that child maltreatment in this country had dropped to the lowest level since 1990. And it was a sharp drop: In 2006, an estimated 903,000 children were maltreated; in 2008, 772,000. That is a decrease of 14.5 percent in just two years.

Some other numbers from the report: The rate of child victimization was 10.3 per 1,000 children in 2008, down from a high of 15.3 in 1993, and the lowest since the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System began in 1990.

It seems like an incredible victory in the fight to reduce the abuse and maltreatment of children in this country, right? 

Not so fast. Just five months earlier, in October 2009, the advocacy group Every Child Matters Education Fund issued a report citing federal statistics showing that an estimated 1,760 children died in the U.S. from abuse and neglect in 2007, a 35 percent increase from 2001. Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.) called it an “epidemic of child abuse” in the U.S. when Every Child Matters released the report.

How does one make sense of these seemingly contradictory trends? The abuse and maltreatment of children is in decline – but the number of children dying due to maltreatment is increasing? 

Frankly, I am not sure what to make of it all, but I do worry that the purported drop in abuse is, in reality, a mirage, that the rate of maltreatment of children has not gone down at all – it’s just that the state agencies responsible for doing something about it have gotten better at ignoring it. If that’s the case, it may make the abuse and maltreatment statistics look better, but this grim truth remains: The more reports of maltreatment are ignored, the more children end up dead.

Are the state agencies responsible for investigating and dealing with allegations of child abuse purposely turning a blind eye? I doubt it, but the reality is that virtually every  Department of Children and Families (or whatever variation it is called) in the country has been hit hard with budget cuts, and those cuts take their toll. The departments have less staff – to receive the calls coming in; to go out and do an investigation; to remove and place a child or children in an out-of-home setting; to do the work of reunification, and if not reunification, then putting together a humane and workable plan for the child. 

I suspect another factor is involved in the “why are reports of abuse are going down while child deaths are increasing” dilemma: the increasing use of the differential response approach to child abuse reports. According to the American Humane Association, differential response “is an approach that allows child protective services to respond differently to accepted reports of child abuse and neglect, based on such factors as the type and severity of the alleged maltreatment, number and sources of previous reports, and willingness of the family to participate in services.” 

Using the differential response approach, social workers can dispose of reported neglect or abuse cases without conducting an investigation if the risk to the child or children is deemed to be low. And these cases are never recorded in any child abuse registry. The traditional method called for investigation of each and every report of child abuse and neglect.  

The Humane Association notes on its website, “It is suggested that families receiving the non-investigation assessment response are more likely to be receptive to and engaged in the receipt of services when approached in a non-adversarial, non-accusatory way. The incident-based, often perceived adversarial, investigation is reserved for those accepted reports that are high-risk and egregious.”

The problem is how to define and determine which situations are low-risk, moderate-risk, high-risk and egregious. That’s the challenge in our field – often you cannot. Even the best of us, those who have worked in this field for decades, have been fooled.

There are elements of differential response that are good, and I don’t mean to pin the entire increase in child maltreatment deaths on this approach. But I worry that this new way of responding to allegations of abuse and neglect is playing a role in the rise in child deaths. Because many times an “often perceived adversarial investigation” is just what is needed to save a child from a perilous home situation.


Mark Redmond is executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services, Burlington, Vt., and the author of “The Goodness Within: Reaching out to Troubled Teens with Compassion and Love.” He can be reached at mredmond@spectrumvt.org.



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